Philippe d'Louis and his daughter Lily
"La Petite Coquette"
Neighbors to the Proust household were Phillippe d'Louis and his young daughter, Lily.
d'Louis, who had been a circus acrobat for many years, shocked the neighborhood with his regular soirees of dwarves, bearded ladies, and other physical oddities. The entire town was scandalized except for the invalid in his bedroom, who was fascinated by the weekly reports of the events he was never going to attend.
One day his mother came into Proust's bedroom with the most scandalous news. d'Louis was teaching his daughter to walk the rope! Imagine introducing a little girl to the ways of circus folk! The rumor was that the father was even giving the child a circus nickname, "La petite coquette." Oh, horrible! The little flirt! How could he? Did he intend for her to join the troupe one day?
The news gave Proust a new force to his imagination. It drove him into flights of fancy that were so unlike his daily journal, in which he wrote down the aristocratic comings and goings of the local gentry that filled his days. No one would be interested in the story of the bird-like Lily, who Proust fancied would visit him by walking a tightrope strung between his bedroom window and hers.
"Ah, if only!" Proust mused. "What a conversation we would share!" He was determined to meet the little girl, if just to amuse her at tea with a tray of madelaines. He sent an invitation; his mother was outraged. She intercepted his card before it could be delivered.
"Marcel, you mustn't invite this family to the house! Imagine the talk!"
Weeks passed, in which Marcel could think of nothing but arranging a meeting with la petite coquette. His journal writing suffered for it. One afternoon, a workman came to the Proust residence to repair a leak that had developed in his bedroom. Marcel saw his opportunity. He paid the workman a small sum to arrange a rope between his bedroom window and Lily's.
When one end was fixed in his bedroom, he instructed the workman to go next door and tell the father that he had seen loose shingles on the roof while passing by, and would need to inspect the roof. The workman went straight to Lily's room where the little girl was playing.
The little girl at first was bashful at the stranger's appearance, but when she learned that the dashing gentleman next door wanted to see her walk the rope between the houses, she thrilled with this new adventure. With her father's eventual approval, the rope was fixed.
So it was that when Proust's mother was away on an errand, anyone who cared to look three stories above the beautiful gardens and trees of the two houses might occasionally see Lily with her parasol on beautiful days, walking the rope toward the invalid writer's room. Over tea and madelaines, she told him the wild stories of her father's parties; he entertained her with his endless silly stories of people in the town of which there seemed to be an iinexhaustible supply.
Proust was so charmed by Lily's visits that he eventually named one of his works À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs: In the shadow of young girls in flower. But the two agreed to keep their meetings such a secret between them that "La petite coquette" was never mentioned -- not even once! -- in Proust's great book, Remembrance of Things Past.
A likely story! An unlikeliy pair. But who's to say in the great hall of literature that these events didn't happen, at least in one writer's imagination?